Parading the Colors
Boston Harbor, 30 September 2006: The frigate USS Constitution—Old Ironsides—fires a 21-gun salute in honor of the nation's Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, more than 70 of whom were hosted that day by the famous old ship and her crew. One of the US Navy's original warships, Old Ironsides is the oldest commissioned vessel in the fleet. She flies the fifteen-star, fifteen-stripe version of the Stars & Stripes that was the US National Ensign during the War of 1812. (Versions of the Stars & Stripes previous to the current 50-star flag have never been unauthorized, may be flown, and are entitled to the same respect and honors as the current flag.) The ship is dressed overall with signal flags for the occasion.
After a period of active service during which she fought many gallant actions, Old Ironsides was placed in ordinary (decommissioned) at the Boston Navy Yard in 1828. In 1830 the Navy Department proposed that the ship be struck off charge and sold for breaking up. But a public outcry against the sacrifice of this historic warship, sparked by a poem written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., led to the reversal of this decision, Old Ironsides was instead refitted and served as an active warship until 1855. Just prior to the Civil War, she was converted into a school ship. In the following decades she served the Navy in a number of secondary roles, finally becoming a museum ship in 1925. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered her placed in permanent commission as a living memorial to the foundation of the nation and its Navy. Her home port today is the Charleston Navy Yard in Boston, Massachusetts.
Aye tear her tattered ensign down
long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;—
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;—
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!
Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.